Log in
updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

FlynnsHarp logo 042016

National attention in '22 bowl game fed thirst for grid glory at Gonzaga before basketball

As UW and WSU football fans bask in the satisfaction of 2015 bowl-game victories and the college football season comes to a climax with this week's NCAA national championship game, a few students of sports-history trivia may recall when a third team from the State of Washington played in a national-visibility bowl game.

That was back in 1922 when the San Diego East-West Christmas Classic was scheduled to pit Notre Dame against little Gonzaga College from Spokane. It attracted national attention in advance of the game because it was a dream matchup pitting the teams coached by Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais, the two men credited with teaming at Notre Dame to create the forward pass.

But the game wasn't to be as Notre Dame lost its last game of the '22 season to Nebraska and Rockne decided his team didn't deserve a post-season game. So what developed was even more of a David-and-Goliath game, matching Gonzaga against a West Virginia that was undefeated and a victor over the Pittsburgh team that would play in the Rose Bowl a week later on New Year's Day.

Conversation at a recent Christmas-holiday gathering of Gonzaga alums and fans from across the state visiting in advance of the Bulldogs' annual basketball game in Seattle to give Westside fans a chance to see the Zags play turned inevitably, during the climax of football season, to that San Diego bowl game, and the era when Gonzaga played football.

That's a clue that this is a special-interest column from one who grew up in Spokane and graduated from Gonzaga, a column thus likely of interest primarily to fans of Gonzaga athletics or Spokane prominence, but perhaps also for fans of the underdog, in whatever setting or era. Others may wish to move on to more interesting fare.

The fact that there was football at Gonzaga before there was basketball will amuse or intrigue some who have been impressed with Gonzaga's record of 17 consecutive trips to the NCAA basketball tournament.

Basketball has served to satisfy Gonzaga's hunger for national athletic prominence in a way that would have been too far fetched to have even been dreamed of in years past on the Gonzaga campus. But the fact is that the hunger for a "big time" role in sports was first nurtured on the football field, beginning back in the '20s.

For two turbulent decades Gonzaga pursued a dream of gridiron glory, spurred in part by the visibility in gained in that 1922 bowl game, only to become entangled by the late '30s in a morass that threatened financial ruin for the tiny school.

It was a story repeated often across the country, beginning in that splashy era of the 1920s, when all America burned incense to the god of sports and small, private colleges, struggling to compete with their bigger brothers for academic recognition, turned to football as a ticket to prestige and prominence.

Gonzaga was among the first of many small, mostly private, schools to seek football prominence, pursuing an Ozymandian delusion of grandeur that football could be the ticket to a wealthy campus and national renown.

But back to the 1922 game against a West Virginia team competing in its first bowl. Gonzaga was led by a triple-threat back named Houston Stockton, who as a sophomore was writing large on the national football scene as his grandson, John Stockton, would do on the collegiate basketball scene at Gonzaga and in the professional ranks 60 years later.

Stockton had already attracted national attention a year earlier when as a freshman at St. Mary's in California, he gained honorable mention honors on the most prominent All-America team in 1921. But he transferred to Gonzaga and quickly began to make his mark as a Bulldog.

In the home opener in a new $100,000 stadium before an overflow crowd of 5,600, Stockton turned in a stunning single-game performance, scoring six touchdowns and kicking 10 conversions for 46 points as Gonzaga beat Wyoming, 77-0.

The odds against Gonzaga on that Christmas Day were overwhelming and the way the game unfolded bore that out as West Virginia took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Then Gonzaga found itself. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns, one by Stockton, in 10 minutes. With two minutes to go, Stockton (who rushed for 110 yards that final quarter) found future Gonzaga coach Mike Pecarovich in the end zone. But he dropped the ball. Final score: West Virginia 21, Gonzaga 13.

The game got an eight-column headline in the New York Times sports pages as Gonzaga won praise from coast to coast, lauded as "the Notre Dame of the West." A Chicago Tribune sports writer enthused that "West Virginia won. But it wasn't a Christmas present. Pulling a bone from an angry bulldog is not like getting a toy drum from Santa Claus."

Dorais and Stockton teamed for two more years, including an undefeated 1924 season. Then Stockton moved on to professional ball with the Frankfort Yellowjackets, predecessor to the Philadelphia Eagles, which he guided to the NFL championship in 1926. Dorais headed for the University of Detroit where he spent most of the rest of his coaching career.

A number of great players followed Stockton as Gonzaga stars. George (Automatic) Karamatic, who won a place on the 1936 All-America team, and Tony Canadeo, known as the "Grey Ghost of Gonzaga" for his prematurely gray hair, went on to stardom in pro ball, setting the Green Bay Packers' single-season rushing record.

Ray Flaherty, a member of the 1924 undefeated team, became an all-NFL end in a decade with the New York Giants. Then he was hired to coach the Washington Redskins and became one of the dominant coaches in the NFL, guiding the Redskins to two NFL titles and five division titles.

His teams always included a cadre of Gonzaga players whom Flaherty routinely drafted, explaining to me in an interview years ago "I'd take too much heat from my Spokane friends if I didn't draft each year's best Gonzaga players. Some never forgave me for letting Canadeo get away."

The outbreak of war in 1941 ended Gonzaga's pursuit of football fame, a quest that was doomed to die at some point, having cost the school the then-dramatic amount of $60,000 in its worst year and providing less than a dime of profit in the best.
Continue reading
  1647 Hits
  0 Comments
1647 Hits
0 Comments

Big East Conference, despite distances, may lure Gonzaga basketball to where prestige, money await

The rise of Gonzaga to number-one ranking among college basketball teams and its early plunge into NCAA tournament oblivion sparked interest and attention beyond the usual sports-fan ranks. And so will the possible next chapter for the little Spokane school, if it successfully pursues membership in a reorganized Big East Conference, where media riches can abound.

 

If, Gonzaga exits the West Coast Conference, as is being increasingly rumored on both sides of the country, much of the conversation would focus on the role athletic success has come to play in not only the image but also the broader financial success of smaller private universities.

 

What's become known in recent weeks as the Catholic 7 group of top-tier basketball powers is splitting from the football-playing members of the 34-year-old Big East Conference at the end of June to form its own conference, which will retain the Big East name. Gonzaga has reportedly reached out to officials of the new Big East to indicate an interest in becoming a member.

 

That may come as a shock to many Gonzaga basketball fans, but not to those who know that Bulldogs coach Mark Few has wanted out of the WCC for a number of years. And as the financial picture offered by membership in the Big East sinks in, there's likely to be growing pressure to work out the geographic challenges and make the move to a conference where media revenue can provide riches.

 

The Catholic 7 schools -- DePaul, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova and Marquette -- will become a 10-team league by adding Butler (as the only non-Catholic university but a private school with high academic standing), Xavier and Creighton before the start of next season.

In 2014-15, the new Big East is expected to add two more teams, with Dayton and St. Louis the leading candidates to join and thus create a 12-member alignment.

 

Gonzaga, which reportedly spent $5.3 million on all aspects of the basketball program and had revenue of $6.1 million (that was two years ago, the most recent year for which figures are available), would rank in the middle of the Big East pack in both categories.

 

Marquette, with $10.3 million in basketball expenses and $15.6 million in revenue, and Georgetown, at $8.6 million and $9.5 million, top the Big East teams, though Villanova had $8.0 million in revenue and Xavier, a Jesuit university in Cincinnati, had revenues of $11.2 million.

 

The figures come from the U.S. Department of Education, which requires NCAA schools to report what's called "equality in athletics" information, and were reported last October in the Memphis Business Journal, which did an exhaustive review of the numbers and reported the rankings.

 

You can search "NCAA college basketball expenses" and find a CNN breakdown of all basketball revenue and expenses for the 2008-09 season, though CNN notes that comparison between basketball revenues and profits "is interesting, but not precise." That's because schools have latitude in their filings and may assign revenue and expenses to different sports, meaning schools that play football may skew the basketball information, but that's far less likely among these non-football schools.

 

Gonzaga's expenditure and revenue totals are well beyond schools in the WCC, but stack up comparatively well with major western schools, including many of the Pac-12 schools. Figures reported by Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State and University of California showed expense and revenue similar to Gonzaga's attributed to men's basketball.

 

Those close to the Gonzaga basketball program are well aware that several years ago, Few, wanted to become an independent. But because the conference had let it be known that other sports wouldn't be welcome to stay in the WCC if Gonzaga exited for basketball, the idea was set aside

 

 There's no official comment from either Gonzaga or the Big East members on a possible role for Gonzaga in the basketball-driven new alliance of Catholic schools. But sports bloggers have begun to toss out the possibility.

 

Except for the challenge of distance, Gonzaga would be viewed as a logical member of the group. And a longtime friend of mine at Marquette observed "Gonzaga would add so much to this conference."

 

Distance remains the challenge to overcome in any discussions going on about Gonzaga and the Big East, given the fact that the closest school would be Omaha, once Creighton joins the conference.

 

But the fact a number of trustees got together several years ago to put up $150,000 each to allow Few to charter flights for the team's trips rather than the tedious and draining commercial travel would ease some of the challenge of distance.

 

Seattle businessman Jack McCann, a 17-year member of Gonzaga's Board of Trustees, who is among those involved in supporting the charter-flights, says it came about when concern by some trustees that Few might be lured to another school with a big-money offer talked with the coach about what they could do for him.

 

"In typical fashion, Few said 'I'm not worried about me, but I am concerned for my guys and the drain of travel,'" recalled McCann, who declined to directly address the Big East rumors.

 

But with that arrangement to help players with travel challenges by putting up the money for charter flights, the trustees may have, without specifically intending it, set the stage for Gonzaga to accept any offer to join the Big East.

 

No matter its hoop success over the past 15 years, Gonzaga has been routinely described as a successful "mid-major" team, a description that basically describes the few schools like Gonzaga that have achieved success despite being in conferences that aren't quite big time.

 

 

All that would change, in both image and income, for Gonzaga with membership in the Big East.

Continue reading
  1283 Hits
  0 Comments
1283 Hits
0 Comments

52°F

Seattle

Mostly Cloudy

Humidity: 63%

Wind: 14 mph

  • 24 Mar 2016 52°F 42°F
  • 25 Mar 2016 54°F 40°F
Banner 468 x 60 px